Sunday, October 30, 2016
Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation - Rom 3:19-28
If you had been a Christian in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, your experience of the faith would have been very different. You would have been baptized as an infant. However, the Church would have taught you that while this baptism forgave original sin and any sin committed up to the time of your baptism, it did not forgive any sins that you committed after baptism.
Instead, the center of your life as a Christian would have been penance. In the famous words of St. Jerome, penance was described as “the second plank.” If you fell out of the ship of your baptism into the water because of sin, you could grab on to this plank in the water in order to save you.
The word penance could mean “to be repentant” – to be sorry for one’s sin as a person sought forgiveness from God. But in the medieval Church the word had come to mean that a person “did penance” – that the Christian did something in the process that brought forgiveness.
At the center of penance, was the practice of confession. While this may bring to mind the image of a Roman Catholic confessional booth, this is not what you would have experienced. The confessional booth was not in fact invented until the second half of the sixteenth century. Instead you would have gone to church where your priest would have been sitting in a chair in the chancel area. You would have kneeled before your priest and then made confession.
In order for this confession to bring forgiveness, it was necessary for it to be complete. You needed to confess every mortal sin you had committed since your last confession. The priest’s job was to question you and seek out every mortal sin so that none was left unconfessed. Many forms of the theology of the day believed that this confession had to be made in the right mental state of being sorry for the sins.
The priest absolved you. He forgave your sins. But then, he gave you satisfaction to perform. After all, you had to do penance. Since the twelfth century, the Church had taught that absolution forgave the guilt of sin. But it did not remove the penalty of sin. You still owed God something for offending him. And so you had to do something.
The logic of this went back into the early medieval period when the Church had established expectations about how much penance was necessary for each mortal sin. The common unit for evaluating this was a seven years fast – a fast in which one significantly denied oneself of food during the course of seven years. Since each mortal sin required this penance, it’s not hard to see how a person could soon end up with an impossibly large amount of penance that was owed.
The priest would give you an easy satisfaction to perform – like saying some Our Fathers - because you needed to complete the satisfaction or else the absolution he had spoken would not be valid. But of course, this didn’t begin to pay off all of the penalty you owed God … not even close.
And this is where purgatory came into play. If you died as a Christian with your mortal sins forgiven, you were going to be saved. But that penalty you owed God still had to be paid. And you would pay it in purgatory which was described as a burning fire that purified the individual. This was not a vacation. It was a horrible experience to be feared and avoided – one in which a person could easily spend thousands of years.
The answer, was to acquire good works that helped to pay off this penalty. After all, the church taught that it was easier to pay off the penalty during this life than it was to suffer the full length of time owed after death in purgatory. Late medieval Christianity was dominated by a whole range of practices that were all were all aimed at paying God the penalty that was owed.
First of all, if you were really serious about your salvation you would join a religious order as a monk or a nun since that was a step above this whole system of penance. But if you weren’t willing to do that, then you would go on religious pilgrimages. You would pay for masses to be said. You would pay to endow monasteries or churches. And you would pay for indulgences. All of these things helped to pay off the penalty that was owed in purgatory. As one scholar has written, “The goal was to do more penance, to render more payment, as much and as often as possible.”
In the latter part of 1517, indulgences were on the mind of an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther who taught theology at the University of Wittenberg. Special indulgences were being sold in a nearby territory, and the people of Wittenberg were buying them. Luther was prompted to consider the claims being made about indulgences, and what he found was troubling. He posted Ninety-Five Theses, ninety-five statements that bore the title, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”
Martin Luther thought he was seeking an academic discussion about indulgences. He did not understand how that discussion would call into question the entire medieval theology of penance. He did not realize that it would uncover the fact that large portions of the Church’s teaching was based on the opinions of theologians in the Church and not on Holy Scripture – not on the Word of God.
What Martin Luther did know from his own experience was that the practice of the medieval Church left the Christian in constant uncertainty. Had all sins been confessed? Had they been confessed with the proper attitude? Had you done enough penance to escape purgatory?
The Christian was called upon to do and do and do in order to obtain peace with God. But from his own experience as a monk, Luther knew that doing did not bring comfort. It did not bring peace. And as he studied God’s Word, he realized why. A key passage in this discovery was our text in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
There Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Paul says that the reason the law never brings peace is that doing the law cannot justify a person before God. It cannot produce the verdict on the Last Day in which God declares a person to be just and innocent before him. Instead, the only thing the law does is to bring the knowledge of sin. It constantly reveals what you have not done.
We try to hide from this fact. We try to recalibrate things. We try to recast the law as something that is doable. And in Christianity today, the sanctified life is presented as the proof that a person is saved. Christians are told to look at how they live for proof of their salvation.
The problem is that in the end, you can’t evade God’s law. You can’t escape God’s will for life which encompasses thought, word and deed – a will that relates both to God and to our neighbor. In the end, that law will crush you with the knowledge that Paul expressed earlier in this chapter: “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have been under the power of sin. Conceived and born as sinners, the way of the law – the way of doing – can bring nothing but sorrow.
Martin Luther had learned this all too well. But as he studied our text he was drawn to the apostle’s words: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” As he studied Scripture, Luther came to understand that the “righteous of God” was not something that God demanded. Instead, it was something that God gave! God’s righteousness was his saving action in Jesus Christ which made people just in his eyes. A person was justified – he or she had the verdict of “not guilty” - on the Last Day because of what God did, not what the person had done.
God had given his own Son on the cross as the sacrifice for sin. In an act of undeserved and sacrificial love, he had dealt with sin so that all people can be just in his eyes. The first Adam had brought sin. But Jesus Christ the second Adam had died in order to provide the forgiveness of sin. And in his resurrection on the third day he had emerged as the victor over death for us.
There was nothing to do. It was God’s gift that was received in one way – by faith in Jesus Christ. And this faith was not doing. In fact, Paul tells us in the next chapter that faith in Jesus is the opposite of doing. He writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Medieval Christianity could only offer uncertainty. But what the Lutheran Reformation revealed again as a shining light in a dark world of sin is that the Gospel is all about certainty. Jesus Christ has done everything for you in his death and resurrection. There is nothing left for you to do. He has given it all to you as a gift – a gift that is simply received by faith. He has placed that gift in located means that guarantee it is for you. How do you know you are forgiven? You’ve been baptized! How do you know Jesus’ forgiveness applies to you? He puts his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins into your mouth.
The Gospel is about certainty. And that certainty then changes everything that we do. Medieval Christians were doing all the time. The problem, is that they were doing stuff that man had made up. There were doing stuff that was selfish – it was all about them - as they tried to pay off God.
But when you understand that forgiveness and salvation are a gift given by God’s grace on account of Christ and received by faith, you don’t have to worry anymore about doing things for yourself. Instead, you are freed to do things for others. And when you start to serve others in the different callings in life where God places you, you are doing the stuff that God actually wants done. You are doing the stuff of the Ten Commandments as explained by the Lord Jesus and his apostles.
Martin Luther discovered that when the Gospel comes clear we receive certainty about salvation. We know that we are justified by grace alone, by Christ alone and by faith alone. And when we are freed from doing in order to be saved, we are free so that we can do for others.